Billie Jean King: Today's tennis stars can shape the future like the 'Original 9'

Exclusive: Fifty years on from a tennis rebellion, King recalls how her contemporaries fought the establishment to shape the women's game forever

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“The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself, but most importantly, you can shape the future.”

That is Billie Jean King’s message to the younger generation of players, who owe a great deal to the American and the eight women who courageously broke away from the tennis establishment 50 years ago to carve their own path, fight for equality, and lay the groundwork for women’s professional tennis as we know it today.

In 1970, frustrated by the pay inequality between men and women at the time, King, along with Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid – the Original 9 as they are commonly referred to – risked everything by signing $1 contracts with World Tennis magazine promoter Gladys Heldman to compete at the groundbreaking women-only Virginia Slims Invitational in Houston.

"In '68, when Rod Laver won the Wimbledon title, he got £2,000 and I got £750. I got 37.5 per cent of what he got. Besides not getting as much money, we started losing tournaments; no place to go, no place to compete," King told The National on the eve of the 50-year anniversary of the Original 9's bold move.

Sick of being treated as a sideshow to the men at tournaments, and refusing to accept the outrageous pay gap, the Original 9 took a stand.

The tennis establishment refused to sanction the Houston tournament, and threatened to blacklist participants – meaning they could lose the right to play at the grand slams, represent their country in team competitions and be stripped of national rankings.

The nine women still chose to walk away.

“We were willing to give up our careers for the future generations, because if we keep getting less than less, we're never going to have a chance, it's not going to happen,” says King.

That Houston tournament paved the way for a full women-only tennis circuit to be formed the follow year. King and her cohorts would go knocking on promoters’ doors, asking them to stage tournaments. They would go to newspapers trying to convince them to cover their matches.

“This was hilarious, we would go out and say, ‘it's very high risk, you’ll probably lose everything. But would you sponsor a tournament for us? Because we had no infrastructure whatsoever,” King recalls.

In 1973, King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, uniting all professional female tennis players under one umbrella.

“What happened is that the USTA [United States Tennis Association] started another tour against us. We had two tours for about two years. And I said, ‘We can't have that. We have to have everyone together. And since the guys won't take us, we have to do our own. And we have to have us together, we cannot divide the top talent’,” says King.

In this Sept. 23, 1970, photo provided the Houston Library, tennis players hold up $1 bills after signing a contract with World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman to turn pro and start the Virginia Slims tennis circuit. From left standing are: Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey and Peaches Bartkowicz. From left seated are: Judy Tegart Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Rosie Casals, Gladys Heldman and Kristy Pigeon. Gladys Heldman replaced her daughter, Julie Heldman, who was injured and unable to pose for the 1970 photo.  It’s the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King and eight other women breaking away from the tennis establishment in 1970 and signing a $1 contract to form the Virginia Slims circuit. That led to the WTA Tour, which offers millions in prize money. (Bela Ugrin/Courtesy Houston Library via AP)

Tennis is by far the most successful women's sport with nine of the top 10 highest-earning female athletes this past year all tennis players, headlined by Japan's Naomi Osaka, who earned $37.4 million (Dh137m) over a 12-month period up to May, according to Forbes.

King and her fellow Original 9ers fought hard for equal prize money and in 1973, the US Open became the first of the four Grand Slams to offer the men and the women the same prize money.

It took more than three decades to establish equal pay at all the other majors.

The four slams are their own stand-alone entities and King wants to remind the current crop of players that the true strength of women’s tennis lies in the WTA Tour. It is where they get to compete all year round, all across the globe, visiting new markets and promoting the sport.

“The players would not be getting their cheques [without what we did]. They would not be getting equal prize money. They would not have tournaments like a tour,” says King.

“That's why I want them to support the WTA Tour because they have no idea what it's like without a tour. I always say to them, ‘Would you want to just have four grand slams?’ The go, ‘No’. Well, if you only support them and talk about them, that's what's going to happen.

“And when they play a tournament, do not, do not say it's a ‘warm-up for a slam’. Wherever you are, the local people have taken this risk. So you always thank them and say how important it is to you to win this.”

14th June 1970:  American tennis player Billie Jean King in action against Ann Jones of Great Britain during their Wightman Cup match at Wimbledon.  (Photo by Ted West/Central Press/Getty Images)

At 76, King is as passionate about growing women’s tennis now as she was half a century ago. Last week, she became the first woman to have a major global competition named after her when the International Tennis Federation announced it would be renaming the Fed Cup to the Billie Jean King Cup.

She hopes to use this long-standing country-vs-country women’s competition to expand tennis’ reach.

“It's an unbelievable honour, but at the same time, it's also a responsibility. It’s an amazing opportunity to truly help others and help tennis grow and help countries,” she says.

The reaction to the announcement of the BJK Cup has been huge. Past and present  players have all posted video messages honouring King, and Elton John, a close friend of King’s, took to Twitter to congratulate her.

Tributes to the Original 9 came pouring in on Wednesday's landmark anniversary, two days after the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced that they have been nominated, as a group, for the 2021 ballot.

King admits it’s all been “overwhelming”.

“We're so excited. We never had this kind of attention. So everybody's in shock,” she says with a smile.

The 12-time Grand Slam champion is urging current players to rise to the occasion and strive for leadership roles. King believes the more you excel in your sport, the more you’ll be able to garner attention and fight for what you believe in.

Osaka has been a prime example of that as she marched towards the US Open title earlier this month, while also joining the fight against racial injustice in America by wearing a different mask for each of her matches, bearing the names of black victims of police shootings.

“I want this to represent the fact that women should be and could be in decision-making positions, because that's everything, and we need to do that,” says King. “It helps when a player does well, to argue for that country.”

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, fires a ball into the stands after defeating Shelby Rogers, of the United States, during the quarterfinal round of the US Open tennis championships, Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

For King, once again, it comes down to appreciating your history to move forward. She continues to serve as a reminder of what it takes to change the course of history.

“I don't think the kids today care about history,” she says.

“We have a ‘Power Hour’ at the WTA where they come in and they bring the best kids in. I always say, ‘Where do you want tennis to be five years from now? Where do you want it to be 10 years from now?’ And they always go, ‘Oh, I haven't thought about it’.

“I said, ‘Well, please think about it because you're the leaders now, you're the future. So know about your history so you can shape the future’.”